Gin. An ancient and extraordinary distillate.

Gin. An ancient and extraordinary distillate.

Aug 31, 2022


Ilaria Rosa

The gin is an ancient alcoholic drink, in most cases colorless, obtained with the distillation of fermented products obtained mostly from potatoes and cereals, in which a mixture of herbs, spices, plants, berries and botanical roots is macerated. Among all the substances present, juniper berries must never be missing, a necessary and indispensable ingredient that characterizes the scent and taste of this particular distillate, in fact its name derives from this plant.

The common juniper it is a conifer that can adapt to arid, uncultivated or wooded places; it can be found up to heights of 2,500 m S.L.m. thanks to some subspecies that have adapted to high altitudes. It is an evergreen shrub, or small tree, which can grow from 1 to 10 m tall, is characterized by very pungent linear-needle-like leaves gathered in whorls of three. The plant is dioecious, that is, with unisexual flowers on each individual plant, one with male flowers and one with female flowers. These then produce the cones or berries or cuddles with which, in addition to being used in the production of Gin, you can prepare juniper grappa. There are over 60 species of juniper plants or shrubs.

Juniper berries give this unique distillate its typical, easily recognizable aroma and flavor. The EU specification nr 110 of 2008 provides that the juniper flavor in Gin must be predominant; unfortunately today this is not verifiable in the gins on the market. On the contrary, there are products in which this flavor is almost imperceptible, and which should not even be called gin, because they do not deserve to be included in this category.

Juniper has always been known for all its innumerable properties; the primitives fed on its black berries and the Egyptians used it mainly for embalming. In the Middle Ages its healing potential for the stomach was known, and already in the 11th century, in Italy, a juniper-based brandy cordial was produced, studied in the schools of monastic medicine. In fact, the first rudimentary gin mentioned in the literature is Italian, and more precisely in the 1055 treaties in the Compendium Salernita, where it is written about a distillate of wine infused with juniper berries.

In the hills around Salerno, juniper plants grew luxuriantly and were used in the stills of monks and pharmacists. It was in that century that the monks began to produce cordials with particular characteristics, using blends of local herbs and spices, and distillates with juniper berries. In the mid-1200s, Pedro Julião, who later became Pope John XXI, in a treatise on eye care described the Liber de Oculis, "cousin" of gin called "eye water" which was nothing more than a cordial made with different botanicals. Thus began numerous experiments that gave rise to recipes that we still find on the market today, such as the famous cordial Bénédictine produced for the first time in Normandy, in the abbey of Fécamp, by Bernardo Vincelli a Benedictine monk from Venice.

However, it is between 1200 and 1300 that the real diffusion of distillates takes place. The first to use the term water of life (water of life) was Arnaldo da Villanova, a Catalan doctor who recommended its use even outside the medical field; later one of his pupils, Ramon llull, introduced the first concepts of multiple distillations to make the distillate purer. Juniper brandy as a tonic and energizer spread very quickly, and the consumption of cordials, as a medicine, was used during the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.
In 1269 in the Netherlands juniper berries for medicinal use were very widespread, in fact in the encyclopedic volume Der Naturen Bloeme Volkeren Dr. Jacob Van Maerlant told of a decoction of juniper berries and wine used to treat cramps and stomach pains with effects extraordinary benefits.

There are also mentions of the first distillate as "gin" in the book "A Constelijck Distileerboec" by the doctor Philippus Hermanni of Antwerp, who described theAqua juniperi 98 years before the Dutch colleague Franciscus Sylvius with his genoa, considered by many to be the inventor of gin.
We can document the origins of gin in Holland: certainly in those days the drink did not have the modern characteristics and consideration it has acquired over the centuries. The distillate began to become popular in the United Kingdom when the Dutch leader William of Orange occupied the Scottish throne and the English one with his wife Mary. William of Orange encouraged the distillation of alcoholic beverages with statutes, so soon the production of gin surpassed that of beer. In a short time, British distilleries began producing their own version of "Genever" and definitively shortened the name to "Gin".

The soldiers who took part in the battle in the Low Countries strengthened themselves with "Dutch courage" in the form of a warm sip of gin: drinking gin before the fight was said to have calming properties. But in particular, it was assumed that Gin was very useful for soldiers who were in the colonies or in malaria-infested lands, because Gin made the taste of the antimalarial quinine less unpleasant and bitter. It is quite important to remember that in the XVIII century, drinking alcohol rather than water was undoubtedly a healthier choice, also because the water was very often dirty and polluted, especially in cities; while alcoholic beverages were distilled and filtered and definitely healthier from that point of view.

From Holland, the long history of Gin moves to England where it initially experienced a particularly favorable period.Gin in the UK could be made quite cheaply and easily, using typical British products, including low quality barley which was not good enough to use for beer fermentation but could still be used to make gin. These were the years in which there was enormous tension between the British and the French following a political conflict, and as hostilities increased, the British increased taxes on French brandies and reduced the taxes on alcohol distillation by even removing the compulsory licensing for the distillation of the same. With this measure, the use of surplus local cereals increased exponentially for the production and distillation of gin. The consumption skyrocketed and when it was even inserted as part of the workers' wages, it all became a big problem as the rate of alcoholism in the poorest population became very high. This resulted in major damage related to security and public order.

The government led by Prime Minister Robert Walpole tried to stem the matter with the famous Gin Acts measure, but by now the damage was done and the reputation of the Gin came out very badly. The Gin Acts five laws were enacted in Great Britain between 1729 and 1751 in order to limit the consumption of gin, including the raising of the distillation tax to 50 pounds. William Hogarth was a great supporter of this tax, so much so that he also mentions it in his work "Beer Street and Gin Lane"; in his writing he talks about the great merits of drinking beer over the faults of drinking gin.

William Hogarth
Over time the gin, produced to perfection, has increased its popularity and has become the protagonist of great cocktails starting from the classic Martini at Gimlet to Tom Collins, the same drinks that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his friends drank, and which are still mixed, stirred and served today in all places of the world!
Many types of gin can be enjoyed straight or "on the rocks"; others are great for use and served in delicious cocktails. The great success of Hendrick's gin has acted as a catalyst for other lesser known brands that, given the enormous success, have dared to "throw themselves into the fray" on this market.
The artisanal gin distilleries today are very numerous and have increased the number and types of gin exponentially, which since 2017 has become a more popular spirit than vodka.

This is how a fabulous Gin Tonic is prepared.
Put lots of ice cubes in a very large balloon glass to keep the cocktail cold for as long as possible. Add 50ml of gin, 200ml of Fever Tree Tonic. Squeeze a strip of lemon peel over the drink and then insert it into the cocktail. Finally add some juniper berries and… the perfect Gin & Tonic is ready!

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